The global warming emails non-event

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Nov. 30 2009 7:26 AM

The global warming emails non-event

You've probably heard by now that a hacker got into the computer system of some climatologists and grabbed a bunch of files, including private emails, from the scientists. The global warming deniers have been trumpeting these as evidence of purposeful fraud, but in reality they are nothing of the sort. I've gotten some emails asking why I haven't talked about this -- some accusing me of being biased -- but that's not the case.

One reason I haven't talked about it is because I think it's a non-issue. These files are not evidence of fraud. I am a scientist myself, and I'm familiar with the lingo. When we say we used a "trick" to plot data (as one of the hacked emails says), that doesn't mean we're doing something to fool people. It means we used a method that may not be obvious, or a step that does something specific. Plotting data logarithmically instead of linearly is a "trick", and it's a valid and useful method of displaying data (your senses of sight and hearing are logarithmic, for example, so it's even a natural way to do things).

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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A more everyday example: a friend tells you that using two filters when brewing your coffee makes it taste better. When you relay this info to someone else, you might say "Using Alex's double filter trick makes my coffee yummier." Same thing. It's not exactly rock-solid evidence of scientific fraud.

The other reason I've left this alone is because others are deflating it quite well. My Hive Overmind co-bloggers Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum over at The Intersection have done so, twice, in their articles The Climategate Burden of Proof and The Latest on the Swifthack.

And all these released files make no difference anyway. As they so succinctly out it:

Those of us who think this is all smoke and no fire are starting from the following position: There is a massive body of science, tested and retested and ratified by many leading scientific bodies, showing that global warming is real and human caused

In other words, these denialist claims are largely ad hominems, and don't get to the core of the issue, and that's the overwhelming amount of data supporting global warming. You need to ask: do these emails and other hacked files change the actual science, the actual conclusions drawn by those scientists?

As far as I can see, the answer is no. What I see are scientists doing science, reacting to vicious personal attacks, and discussing what they are doing in terms scientists always use.

On the other side, I'll say I have no issue with the actual hacking situation itself; if I felt that the government were hiding some huge scandal with an equally huge impact on everyone on the planet, then the illegal act of hacking into someone's computer becomes a relatively minor infraction comparatively. If the hacker actually thinks this, that is. I know a lot of the denialists think as they do because of partisan blindness, and not because they have reached their conclusion through the impartial examination of the evidence (an accusation, no doubt, that will be thrown at me in the comments). Without telepathy or a pile of evidence -- or even his/her identity -- we don't know the motivations of the hacker. They don't really matter to me at the moment; the more important aspect of all this is how the files are being twisted politically.

Bottom line? Yawn. Get back to me when you have equally overwhelming evidence that global warming is not happening, or if it is it's not anthropogenic. Then we can talk.

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